Recently, WFLA in Tampa documented a story about fake landlords using Craig's List and other internet sites to scam potential tenants out of thousands of dollars. The scams range from collecting a security deposit on a house the scammer does not own, to identity theft. How can a tenant protect himself from these potential scams?
1. Verify Ownership of the House
Ownership of the home can be easily verified through the County Tax Collector, County Property Appraiser and/or County Clerk of Court. To start, go to Google, Bing or another search engine. Type in the County where the property is located followed by "tax collector," "property appraiser," or "clerk of court." Each site should have a "property search" or similar link, and you can search by owner's name or property address. Once you have the owner's name, confirm that is the person who posted the advertisement. If not, contact the person who posted the advertisement and ask to see written verification that the person posting the ad has authority to represent the landlord.
2. Drive by the House
What does the house look like? Is someone living there now? Is there a "For Sale" sign out front? Is the grass mowed? Is there a lock box on the door? Does the house look in good shape from the outside? If any of these questions involve a negative answer - i.e. the grass is overgrown, windows are broken or boarded shut, or there is someone living there, then these may be signs that the person trying to lease the house is running some type of scam or deception.
3. Search County Court Records to Find Lawsuits
Once you have the owner's name, search the County Clerk of Court. Search for the owner's name to determine if the property in foreclosure, or whether the landlord is currently trying to evict tenants. Is the potential landlord particularly litigious? Or has the landlord been sued for some other reason?
4. Seek Out an Attorney
Although this will require the payment of a small fee in most cases, an attorney can quickly review a Lease Agreement, and other indicators mentioned in this article, and let you know if your rights are adequately protected under Florida Law.
5. Seek out a realtor
Again, this might require the payment of a small fee, but a realtor who is also a property manager will help you review the neighborhood, determine fair market rental values, and give some assurance that you are dealing with a property owner or authorized agent, rather than a scammer. If the realtor is not a property manager, she may have one in the office.
6. Determine fair market rental values
Site such as Zillow, Trulia and others will give you an approximate fair market rental value. If the offered rent is too far above or below the amount offered, then that is a red flag that you may be dealing with a scammer. Beware, however, the property value information on Zillow, Trulia and other sites is not always 100% accurate.
7. Use Cashier's Check or Money Order to Pay the Deposit
Using a cashier's check or money order to pay the security deposit is one way to avoid identity theft. The only money "at risk" is the amount drawn by the cashier's check or money order. The potential scammer has no access to any bank account. Also, be careful when giving out personal information and make sure to give a social security number only in connection with a legitimate tenant background check (if required by the landlord).
8. Use a Checking Account
This is contrary to point 7 above, but using a check to pay the deposit will give you information on where the landlord deposited the check - did the landlord co-mingle the deposit with other deposits he has been paid, or did the landlord put the security deposit in a separate account? What does the lease require? Obviously, it is not necessary to do both #7 and #8, choose the one that is most comfortable after performing all necessary due diligence in connection with the landlord.
9. GET EVERYTHING IN WRITING
Typically, a scammer will want you to have the least amount of documentation necessary, and a legitimate landlord will have no problems giving a copy of all documents that were signed, including the lease agreement, and rules and regulations of the house and/or community. Also, if something is said to entice a tenant to rent the property, but is absent from the lease agreement, have that enticement added to the rental agreement, in writing, BEFORE signing.
10. Any other due diligence necessary
Some potential tenants may want to search the neighborhood for recent criminal activity through the internet, or through a search of the local police department. Some tenants may also want to check other public information like the sex offender website. Some tenants could even go so far as to hire a private investigator to make sure they are signing a legitimate agreement. The amount of necessary due diligence is the amount necessary to make the potential lessee feel comfortable about renting the house.
- Shawn M. Yesner, Esq.
For more information on Landlord / Tenant issues, or to schedule a free initial consultation to discuss your options, please contact our firm at: 813-774-5737 or email me at: email@example.com.
Shawn M. Yesner, Esq., is the founder of Yesner Law, P.L., a Tampa-based boutique real estate law firm that helps clients eliminate debt by providing options, so they can live the lifestyle of their dreams. We assist clients with landlord/tenant issues, foreclosure defense, debt settlement, Chapter 7, Chapter 13, bankruptcy, liquidation, reorganization, short sales, and loan modifications, for clients in Westchase, Carrolwood, Tampa, Odessa, St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg Beach, Treasure Island, Medeira Beach, Reddington Beach, Kenneth City, Gulfport, Pinellas Park, Seminole, Clearwater, Clearwater Beach, Oldsmar, Dunedin, Safety Harbor, Palm Harbor, Lutz, Wesley Chapel, New Port Richey, Trinity, Port Richey, and other areas that comprise the greater Tampa Bay area.